The Leech will cringe its way into your heart

The Leech will cringe its way into your heart

Toward the end of 2022, an excellent film was released called Speak No Evil. In it, a young family is drawn into a cruel game of preyed-upon kindness, in which their own propensity to be polite prevents them from seeing how easily they are being victimized. The tone of the film is one of unrelenting discomfort, which ultimately gives away to pants-shitting terror. It’s a real stomach-twister, and if not for a deeply-set mean streak of dark comedy, it could have been unbearable. The jet black tone it takes does beg the question, however, of whether such a setup could be used in a more expressly comic way.

Writer/director Eric Pennycoff seems to think that it can. Case in point: The Leech. A black comic tale of a generous, small-town priest and his boundary-overstepping houseguest.

As Christmas approaches and his congregation dwindles to just a handful of parishioners, Father David (Graham Skipper) follows a routine to help retain his faith. He recites the standard platitudes (“the lord works in mysterious ways”), speaks of the value of service, and regularly blogs about his faith on social media (complete with faith-based hashtags). His existence is a meager, lonely one, short of his friendship with the church organist (Ringo Garay), with whom he’s collaborating on a faith-based rap album. He’s such a generous guy that one day, after yet another sparsely attended mass, he offers a helping hand to Terry, a drifter (Jeremy Gardner) who has fallen asleep in the pews of the church.

The way David sees it, to love God is to serve man, so when Terry needs a place to stay, David opens up his home to the man, despite his gruff exterior, nasty habits, and tendency to overstay his welcome in every sense of the phrase. What follows is a test of faith in which Father David must resist the urge to put his foot down. For doing so would be to turn against his beliefs.

For Father David, a man who doesn’t actually seem to be reaping many benefits from his faith, this conflict highlights an extreme transactional imbalance. And as we learn more about why David pursued the cloth in the first place, the already uncomfortable humor becomes deliciously cringe-inducing. One scene, in which David is coerced into a particularly telling round of “Never Have I Ever” is a grand comic set-piece which showcases the film’s character-based comedic energy. Skipper and Gardner have collaborated a few times in the past and it shows. David’s uptight exterior belies a confused interior, while Terry’s confidently shlubby personality acts as the perfect foil. It’s rare for a film to give two characters such strongly realized backgrounds without ever openly expositing, but a flawless marriage of script and performance gets the job done here.

The Leech is too short of a film to be considered a slow burn, but its deliberate pace is managed mostly to success. Since we know, by the very nature of the film, that the hammer is eventually going to fall, some moments may draw on the viewer’s patience. Pennycoff knows this and works it to the film’s advantage. And when the hammer does indeed fall, it does so in truly horrific (and quite funny) ways.

Crisp cinematography by Rommel Genciana captures the wintry isolation of Father David’s life, as well as the colorful holiday warmth that fills the film’s final moments. The visual mood is as consistent with the tone as it is purposefully contrasted to it, with both modes bolstered by an effectively chilling score from Eric Romary.

As much a thriller as it is a comedy, and as much a horror film as it is an exploration of blind faith, The Leech has the potential to become its own sort of alt-holiday favorite. But don’t let the light Christmas branding dissuade you from off-season viewing. This one is evergreen.

Directed by Eric Pennycoff

Written by Eric Pennycoff

Starring Jeremy Gardner, Graham Skipper, Taylor Zaudtke, Rigo Garay

Not Rated, 82 minutes

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